Pancreatic Cancer

Follow-up Care

With the relief of finishing treatment often comes the fear of cancer’s return, which is exactly why follow-up visits are so important for both your physical and mental well-being.

You and your doctors will establish an after-care schedule to successfully monitor your progress and fix any problems as soon as they develop. The frequency of these appointments will depend on the specifics of your type of cancer, and although they can be scary, these visits are an important and necessary part of your recovery.

Survivorship schedule

As soon as your treatment ends, you can shift your focus to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Part of that includes staying in close contact with your team of doctors for two main reasons:

  1. To make sure the cancer doesn’t come back (recurrence).
  2. To catch and treat the disease early if it does return.

The extent of these visits will depend on your specific type and stage of cancer as well as your overall health and family history. Make sure you have all of your medical records organized and available in case you meet with doctors who aren’t familiar with the details of your disease. Providing them with facts from your diagnosis and treatment can help ensure your appointments will be streamlined and thorough.

Doctors typically want to see their patients every three to six months for a physical exam. Depending on whether or not you have any side effects or symptoms, blood tests and/or imaging scans might be scheduled to identify any problems and make sure you remain cancer-free.

It’s extremely important to monitor the functions of your pancreas, liver and other organs during these follow-up visits as well. Blood, tissue and urine samples can be tested to monitor your progress, along with diagnostic tests such as CT and PET scans. Doctors may also check to see if the tumor marker CA 19-9 is present, which would indicate that the cancer has returned.

Many of these tests won’t be necessary unless you’re experiencing side effects, but your doctor will let you know what to expect prior to each appointment.

Lasting side effects

Physical side effects that last beyond the end of your treatment, or those that appear months or years later, are referred to as the “late effects” or “after effects” of cancer. Your doctor should let you know prior to treatment which late effects, if any, you’re more likely to experience, but they may include:

  • Pain – This is a common problem cancer patients deal with after treatment, but it should be addressed long before it becomes an emergency. Discomfort can often be managed with over-the-counter medications or prescription drugs, and physical and relaxation therapies might work as well. In any case, speak with your doctor first to make sure you alleviate instead of aggravate the existing pain.
  • “Chemo-brain” – Otherwise known as “cognitive dysfunction,” this term is used to describe a general mental fog that causes you to have trouble remembering details, names or dates clearly. This can occur during treatment, or months and even years after. There are medications that can help, but many find relief from occupational therapy or cognitive rehabilitation, which helps you regain skills you might have lost as a result of treatment.
  • Osteoporosis – Loss of bone mass happens naturally as you age, but if your bone cells don’t rebuild as quickly as they’re broken down during treatment, osteoporosis can develop, making your bones fragile. Doctors can perform a bone density scan to see if a bone-modifying agent might help, but physical therapy and a healthy diet might help you avoid bone fractures and rebuild your overall strength.

Mind on the mend

Recovering from cancer isn’t just about your body; your mind will also take some time to heal. Depression and stress are often brought on by the “real life” duties you now have to juggle, all of which have likely been taking a backseat to your health. Understand that you don’t need to handle everything all at once. Make a to-do list and then prioritize what you absolutely must accomplish piece by piece. Be realistic about what you can achieve, and be patient with yourself as you establish your new daily routine.

If, over time, you find that you’re having trouble adjusting to your new responsibilities and your stress levels remain high, it’s very important for your overall health to seek help. Your doctor or another member of your treatment team can refer you to a mental health specialist who has experience working with other cancer survivors, or put you in direct contact with these survivors.

A plethora of resources is available to you during every step of your cancer journey. Don’t be afraid to admit you need help, and then do everything in your power to get it.

 

To call or not to call: tip from the advisory board

All through your treatment process, seeing your oncologist at regular intervals has likely become a routine for you. Now, however, that routine is changing, which means fewer visits and more time between them.

During these waiting periods, your mind may play tricks on you. What you ignored before as just back pain from moving a couch, for example, you might now worry is metastatic cancer. Before panicking and calling your oncologist, ask yourself the following questions:

  1. Is this a new pain or symptom I've never experienced before?
  2. Have I been experiencing it consistently for three or more weeks?
  3. Am I unable to think of a known cause for this pain or symptom due to something that has recently happened?

If you answer YES to all three, then it's appropriate to call your oncologist to discuss it.

 

 

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